Trailblazing Through Siberia

shaman tree on lake baikal

by Carolyn Shea

One day, while sitting in a lecture hall, Jon Green ’05 was jolted out of daydreaming “about taking a quarter off from classes and books and writing papers, and going to take a look at the world, doing some exploratory learning.” His environmental studies faculty member, Tom Rainey, was clicking through a slideshow about Siberia, telling his students about the colorful culture and scenic beauty of the Trans-Baikal region, where he had worked on conservation initiatives for more than a decade. “His stories and slides were captivating,” remembers Green. “He talked about nerpa [freshwater seal] hunters, sable farmers, World War II veterans, and lonesome, widowed babushkas.” Eventually, Rainey came to a stunning photo of Lake Baikal taken from the northern point of its biggest island, Olkhon. “I fell in love at first sight,” Green said. “I was going to Baikal.”

Jon Green"My study abroad experience at Evergreen turned out to be the most defining experience of my professional life thus far."

Within two months, Green was on a plane to Russia. In Moscow, he boarded the Trans-Siberian Railroad and headed 3,200 miles southeast, through five time zones and the Ural Mountain Range, into Irkutsk, Siberia, the western gateway city to Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage site known variously as the Galapagos of Siberia and the Pearl of Siberia for its rich biological diversity and magnificent setting. There, he spent spring 2004 as an intern for the Great Baikal Trail Association (GBTA), a nonprofit organization devoted to developing, maintaining, promoting, and protecting Russia’s first national trail system—some 1,500 miles in distance when completed—around the planet’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake. Rainey, now an emeritus faculty member, sponsored an independent learning contract for Green, who was assisted in reaching his destination by winning a Jessica Kelso Memorial Scholarship, which supports undergraduates who travel abroad as part of an approved course of study.

Since its founding in 2003, the GBTA has relied mainly on volunteers from around the world, who, like Green, a New Hampshire native, have fallen in love with the region and are laying the groundwork for its sustainable development through low-impact ecotourism. By introducing economic incentives for the local people to preserve their environment, the GBTA offers a better alternative to industrialism, pollution, and the destruction of natural resources, while simultaneously raising the standard of living in an economically depressed area that has a high rate of unemployment.

During his internship, Green copyedited Russian documents that had been translated into English and worked on producing the Lake Baikal Reader, which serves as a primer on the region for volunteers coming to GBTA and is posted on the Web site of a partner organization in the United States, the Tahoe-Baikal Institute, a Lake Tahoe, Calif.- based nonprofit that educates American and international students about watershed management. “Of course, we also spent a lot of time drinking tea and building relationships— international outreach, you could say—with local students, many of whom are still involved, and even employed, with GBTA,” he reports. That summer, Green volunteered for several trail-building projects, including one at the Baikal Limnological Museum in Listvyanka and several in the North Baikal region.

Three months later, Green returned to Olympia and the college, where he did a stint as a study abroad student assistant and peer advisor in the Office of International Programs, which coordinates Evergreen’s overseas learning opportunities. Through additional independent study and internships, he worked with the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition in Seattle and the Columbia Land Trust in Portland, Ore. But at the end of the school year, he returned to Russia, this time to study the impacts and on-the-ground reality of ecotourism in practice. Initially, he traveled with Robert Smurr’s summer 2005 program, Backpacking in Siberia, which included two weeks of trekking through the southern Altai Mountains near the border of Mongolia. Following this trip, he again journeyed to Lake Baikal with a small group that paddled about half of its 395-mile length in three weeks to reach the remote, unsettled “Brown Bear Coast.” With his companions, Green surveyed the coastline on behalf of the GBTA. By the time he wrote his evaluation for the summer program, he had decided to focus on building a business that would guide ecologically minded tourists to Lake Baikal, one of the natural wonders of the world, and in the process, help protect it from the damage harsher types of development would bring.

Following graduation, Green worked for several environmental groups in the Pacific Northwest, then secured a job as an exchange program coordinator for the Tahoe-Baikal Institute. After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, he went to work for Mountain Travel Sobek, a pioneering adventure travel firm. In the meantime, he has not lost sight of his planned ecotourism venture; next summer he will independently guide—along with Smurr—his first group trip to Lake Baikal.

“My study abroad experience at Evergreen turned out to be the most defining experience of my professional life thus far,” Green says. “The months in Russia, the research I engaged in, and the contacts I made have defined nearly all my professional experiences as a post-grad. Looking back, it was the best opportunity I ever had as a student. My programs and research topics were all significant and important to me in their own way, but nothing compares to the influence my study abroad experience has had on my professional character and the direction of my career.” And he’s still in love. “Since those two trips,” he says, “I’ve never been able to get Siberia out of my head.”